Trump Wants to Defund Schools. He Won’t Because He Can’t

President Trump wants to defund schools if they don't reopen amid the raging COVID-19 pandemic. But he won't, because he can't.


On Wednesday, President Trump used his favorite medium to address the people, Twitter, to threaten to defund schools that don’t open in the fall. In the tweet, he wrote, “In Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and many other countries, SCHOOLS ARE OPEN WITH NO PROBLEMS. The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open!” The statement, much of which included unproven information (especially regarding the Democrats and their position on opening schools) also disregarded the fact that President Trump, for all of his power, has very little, if any, unilateral authority to cut off funding to schools. So here’s what this all means.

Can Trump Actually Cut Off Funding for Schools?

The short answer to this question is ultimately no. No president can unilaterally decide to cut off federal funding for schools — and in fact, the President requires Congressional authorization to do so, which he is unlikely to get, even in a Republican-controlled Senate.

How Much Funding Comes from the Federal Government?

Very little money for education comes from the federal government. Less than 10 percent of funding for public elementary and secondary schools comes from the federal government — the about half comes from the state and the other half from local and city funding via property taxes and other measures.

That being said, if Trump somehow pulled off gutting that federal funding from schools, it would harm schools that receive Title I funding the most. The vast majority of federal funding for schools is focused on disadvantaged districts in students — in 2019, 16 billion in federal money went to Title I schools, and 13.5 billion went to special education. Any money that could be gutted from schools would harm those kids the most, not kids who go to school in wealthy, suburban districts.

What CAN Trump do?

Since he can’t just cut money from schools, and likely won’t be able to pass any measures to do so through the Senate, there is very little Trump can do financially to pressure schools to reopen. He can, however, harm them in one way — by holding up the extra $13 billion in federal funds that Congress approved in late March via the Coronavirus relief bill for schools across the country.

If Trump wanted, which he might, he could rule to block that funding to schools that don’t reopen — but it would lead to a lengthy court battle that he might not even win. That additional federal funding is absolutely sorely needed. Many school districts are already likely to stay in the red through the school year and areas like Colorado have already cut hundreds of millions of dollars from their public school budgets, despite the fact that the average school district will likely need about $2 million in funds to implement COVID-19 related precautions if they do open their schools.